Vermont Coronavirus Updates For Monday, April 20
Vermont reporters provide a round-up of ongoing local coverage of coronavirus for Monday, April 20.
Trustees hear arguments for and against campus closures
The Board of trustees for the Vermont State held a meeting Monday to discuss the Chancellor Jeb Spaulding’s recommendation to close Northern Vermont University campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, as well as the Vermont Tech campus in Randolph. The board was scheduled to vote on the closure plan today, but that vote was delayed at least a week.
Spaulding told the board the drastic measure is needed to keep the entire system from going bankrupt.
“The model which we settled on was able to have us show in a couple years we can be back operating in the black,” he said. “When it came down to it, we only had two realistic choices: continue as we are toward insolvency or transform the system to meet the future.”
Board projections show without a financial boost from the state or federal government, the system will have exhausted all of its funds except its endowment by September.
Spaulding told the board of trustees he estimates about 400 NVU students will transfer to Castleton University, which would become the system's only residential campus, should the closure plans proceed.
"Not every program will transfer,” he said. “They may end up at the University of Vermont. They may end up doing work at community college. We hope to have some commuter-type programs up there. You know, New Hampshire is not that far away from a lot of them."
This leaves state senators worried that several Vermont communities will see a huge financial hit if the college officials approve a plan to close three campuses.
Essex Orleans senator John Rodgers said the town of Lyndon, which hosts Lyndon State College, would be hollowed out economically if the school shuts its doors.
“There will be tons of vacant houses, the kids won't be coming to town to spend money. So I think we really need to have somebody do the full economic analysis as to what do those colleges contribute to the state in bringing in tax dollars and economic impact,” he said.
- Amy Kolb Noyes and John Dillon
Vermont utilities get federal relief
Vermont's major utilities have received millions of dollars from the federal government under a program designed to keep paychecks flowing at small businesses.The $3.49 billion Paycheck Protection Program ran out of money last week, but not before Vermont's five utilities got help.
Green Mountain Power, the state's largest utility, will get $10 million, the maximum allowed under the program. Vermont Gas Systems will get $2.5 million. Both companies are Canadian-owned and plan to ask that the loans be forgiven.
Green Mountain Power spokeswoman Kristin Kelly said the the utility's costs will increase due to the COVID-19 crisis. Read the full story.
- John Dillon
Self-employed continue to await unemployment benefits
Gov. Phil Scott said Vermont is still working to set up a system for self-employed Vermonters to apply for unemployment benefits.
The federal coronavirus relief bill allows self-employed and freelance workers to apply for unemployment, something they could not do before the pandemic.
Scott said he hopes the state will have the program running this week.
“They have not received money at this point but we tried to make that clear,” he said, “we are working again feverishly to get that program stood up so we can start processing those claims.”
This weekend the state cleared tens of thousands of unemployment claims from the backlog that’s built up since mid-March, when a record number of people were laid off due to the pandemic.
Food insecurity jumps by 33% in Vermont due to COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a steep increase in the number of Vermonters experiencing food insecurity, according to a new survey the University of Vermont conducted with more than 3,000 Vermonters.
The percentage of people in the state who are feeling food insecure jumped by about 33%, and most of the people say job layoffs and other employment disruptions are the major cause.
The survey also found more people are helping their neighbors.
The percentage of people who said that someone else brought them food increased from 10% before the outbreak, to about 20% when the survey was finished.
- Howard Weiss-Tisman
Hundreds turn out to protest a plan to close three Vermont colleges
Hundreds of supporters of the Vermont State Colleges System turned out in their cars in Montpelier on Monday to protest a plan to close campuses in Johnson, Lyndon and Randolph.
The protest caused a traffic jam on streets that have been mainly empty during the COVID-19 crisis.
VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding said the closures are needed to offset a major deficit and lower enrollment projections exacerbated by the pandemic.
Jessica Risnesky is a part-time professor at Northern Vermont University. She wants lawmakers to step in and keep the campuses open.
"Their hands are not tied, and we're not going to forget that part of the reason we are in this position is because we have been tied for dead last in the country for state higher education funding," Visnesky said. "We are not going to forget that or let them off the hook."
The Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees could vote on a closure plan as early as next week.
- Bob Kinzel
Ashe voices concerns about state's ability to process claims for the self-employed
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said he's glad the state is writing checks to unemployed people who got stuck on hold waiting for their claims to be processed.
But Ashe said he's worried that the next wave of people to seek benefits could encounter similar delays. He said self-employed workers and independent contractors are now eligible, but the system has not yet processed their claims.
"I still believe there should be far more people taking phone calls because there are going to be many new wrinkles in this program, because it is not conventional like the typical U.I. program," Ashe said. "Establishing people's income is not going to be straight-forward."
The Senate on Monday passed legislation to help with the process that allows the Department of Labor to access income tax data.
- John Dillon
Vermont Senate votes remotely to pass two COVID-19 related bills
The Vermont Senate met remotely on Monday and passed bills related to the COVID-19 economic crisis.
One bill extends the authority for the state treasurer to borrow from various funds within the state government to pay bills. The other bill allows the Tax Department to release income data to the Department of Labor, so self-employed people can get unemployment benefits.
Chittenden Senator Michael Serotkin said the bill was a necessary step to process those claims.
"Starting as early as this week and throughout the rest of the calendar year, they'll be able to release that information to verify the appropriate amount of benefits," Sirotkin said.
The bills were sent to the House, which has not yet voted remotely.
- John Dillon
Another Vermont inmate tests positive for COVID-19
Another Vermont inmate has tested positive for COVID-19 at Northwest State Correctional Facility, bringing the total to 38 inmates and 18 staff with confirmed cases.
In a statement, the Department of Corrections said that inmate is still at the Franklin County facility, in a negative pressure cell.
The state transported more than 30 COVID-19 positive inmates to the correctional complex in St. Johnsbury over the last two weeks.
- Emily Corwin
Governor plans to slowly reopen more businesses
Gov. Phil Scott says he plans to continue to slowly reopen businesses, but he cautioned today that if COVID-19 cases rise, strict measures would return.
As of Monday, one- or two-person crews are allowed to resume work outdoors or in unoccupied buildings, doing, for example, landscape or construction work.
Scott said he hopes to loosen restrictions by the end of the week — but he said businesses could be forced to close again due to the virus.
"Even though we might make another adjustment Friday, the following week on Friday we may see an uptick, and if we see an uptick, we may back off just a bit so we're not putting people at risk," Scott said.
There are now 816 cases of the virus in Vermont and 38 people have died. State health officials say cases of COVID-19 appear to be leveling off.
- Liam Elder-Connors
State officials: Vermont will maintain aggressive testing strategy
State health officials say Vermont will maintain an aggressive testing strategy, even as the number of COVID-19 cases in the state is flattening.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine said as the state reaches the next phase of the crisis, rapid testing and contact tracing for infected individuals will be essential.
Vermont is now conducting between 300 and 700 COVID-19 tests per day.
Levine said the state can sustain that level of testing for months.
"But we are trying to actually acquire more [tests], so that if there comes a time where we need to do even more expansive testing, we will always have some insurance in our back pocket, so to speak," Levine said.
There are now 816 cases of the virus in Vermont and 38 people have died.
- Liam Elder-Connors
Vermont Arts Council secures relief funds for artists
The Vermont Arts Council said the New England Foundation for the Arts has awarded the council $47,000 for emergency relief for Vermont artists struggling financially amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The council said the funds will supplement a relief fund it started last month to provide grants of up to $500 to artists who are having financial difficulty due to the loss of a job, or cancellation of concerts, festivals, theatrical performances and other arts events due to COVID-19.
So far, the council has awarded 164 grants totaling more than $64,000 in aid.
- Sam Gale Rosen
The Labor Department has now cleared 32,000 unemployment insurance claims
The Scott Administration said it's cleared tens of thousands of unemployment claims that were caught in the Department of Labor's backlog.
Unemployment claims have surged since mid-March, when many businesses closed to comply with executive orders restricting movement and mass-gatherings. The Department of Labor has struggled to keep up with demand, blaming its 30-year-old computer system and strict federal regulations.
Commissioner of Labor Michael Harrington said that to move through the backlog, the department decided to approve many claims before ensuring compliance with federal rules.
"Our new job has to move towards quality control... following back with those who have had their issues released to make sure they are resolved in the end, to actually ensure compliance," Harrington said.
Over the weekend, the Vermont Department of Labor processed a backlog of more than 20,000 unemployment insurance claims, and $1,200 checks were mailed out on Monday to the remaining Vermonters whose claims still have not been resolved.
The Labor Department announced on Sunday that 32,000 claim issues had been cleared, allowing claimants to file a weekly claim and start collecting benefits.
There are more than 8,000 remaining individuals whose claims still have issues. They will receive $1,200 from the state, which represents two weeks of federal benefits. This is an initial installment on the full benefits they will receive when their claims have been processed. Those checks were mailed Monday.
- Sam Gale Rosen and Liam Elder-Connors
COVID-19 will likely leave Vermont's education fund in the red
School officials around Vermont are preparing for the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
The state's $1.6 billion education fund is expected to show a $39 million deficit this fiscal year, with more red ink projected next year.
The executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, Jeff Francis, said schools are starting to look at possible budget cuts.
"It's almost as though the words can't do justice to the challenge, because at the very time when we will need to find ways presumably to reduce expenditures, there will be an awareness that the needs schools respond to societally, in terms of supporting children and families, are going to grow," said Francis.
- John Dillon
State Colleges Board of Trustees postpones consolidation vote
Legislative leaders and Gov. PHil Scott persuaded the state colleges Board of Trustees to postpone a vote scheduled for Monday, April 20 on a plan to close three college campuses.
Jeb Spaulding, Chancellor of the state college system, said closing Norther Vermont University's campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, as well as Vermont Technical College's campus in Randolph, will be necessary to close budget gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spaulding told VPR there is no backup plan.
But in a statement released Sunday, Senate President Tim Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said postponing Monday's vote would allow for further study and the creation of a one-year bridge budget to keep the three campuses open.
In his own statement, Gov. Phil Scott said he "didn't support" Spaulding's plan, but that the existing system shouldn't be "bailed out." He called on the legislature to come up with a long-term education plan or Vermont.
- Nina Keck